Ryan making case for spot in Tigers' bullpen

Ryan making case for spot in Tigers' bullpen

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Michael Fulmer's potential conversion from starting to relieving is on hiatus now that he's headed to Triple-A Toledo. Kyle Ryan's future in a big league bullpen, by contrast, might be getting closer to reality.

The Spring Training competition for the final spots in the Tigers' bullpen has put well-deserved attention on Bobby Parnell's fastball, Bruce Rondon's approach, Shane Greene's movement and, until recently, Fulmer's potential. Yet quietly, Ryan's performance could well put the 24-year-old in position to crack the Opening Day roster.

Spring Training: Tickets | Schedule | Information

After retiring three of four Nationals on Sunday, Ryan has logged seven consecutive scoreless innings on two hits with two walks and eight strikeouts. His only damage was a Jordy Mercer solo homer in the Grapefruit League opener on March 1. He's carrying forward his strong finish from last season.

More important to him, Ryan is carrying the lessons he learned from last year, when he bounced between six starts and 10 relief appearances.

"I feel like I know what I have to do to get guys out," he said. "And also from last year, I know other ways how not to get them out as well. Last year I got into a spot where I was using pitches that I don't normally use, and it got me into some trouble throwing strikes right away. Now I'm able to use my fastball and throw strikes."

While the Tigers were open on roles for Fulmer, Greene and Buck Farmer, they were relatively set this year on Ryan. They've felt they have enough starting depth -- in Toledo as well as Detroit -- to make a conversion that has been well-speculated for a while.

While pitching in relief focuses Ryan's energy on shorter outings, it also forces him to focus his pitch selection, basing everything off his fastball instead of trying to mix up sequences for a second or third trip through a batting order. His changeup has been in and out mainly as a pitch to keep hitters honest, and his curve has shown improvement, but he can get away with a fastball-cutter combination when he has to.

To do that, however, he has to command.

"He's been ahead in the count and I think that's really important for him," bench coach Gene Lamont said after his inning Sunday. "He's been impressive."

Ryan isn't getting too excited about it yet, for good reason. As well as he pitches, his Opening Day fate could still come down to bullpen makeup, and whether the Tigers want to carry three left-handed relievers. Justin Wilson and Blaine Hardy are on the team, regardless of Spring Training numbers, because they've had success in the regular season.

The Tigers open the regular season in Miami, where Giancarlo Stanton looms among the most dangerous hitters in the game but bats right-handed. His supporting cast includes left-handed hitters in batting champion Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich, Ichiro Suzuki, Justin Bour and Derek Dietrich.

From there, the Tigers return home to face a Yankees squad that includes lefty-hitting Brian McCann, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Didi Gregorius, but also switch-hitting Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Aaron Hicks.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.